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Charlotte’s Homeless Search for Help as Services Dry Up

When we met Tony and Nancy on a recent Wednesday afternoon, they were just two of nearly 100 people sharing upwards of 70 tents in the area outside the gates of the Urban Ministry Center (UMC). The encampment popped up at the intersection of North College and North Tryon streets in mid-March as service organizations helping the homeless around the city closed or scaled back drastically in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Two nearby encampments had been cleared out leading up to March, including one that was located just across North Tryon Street after a stabbing there in January.

On March 13, UMC put an early end to its annual Room In the Inn program, which partners with churches and colleges to provide housing for the homeless throughout the winter months. Men’s Shelter of Charlotte also scaled down operations at its two shelters to help with social distancing, going from 410 beds and 50 mats to about 365 beds between them. Some people were moved from the shelters to hotels, others ended up on the street.

As for Tony and Nancy, who were married in 2019, they found themselves pitching a tent in the North College Street encampment in late March not because of COVID-19 but due to an unrelated string of bad luck. A house they had rented for $1,200 a month off of Beatties Ford Road was foreclosed on in January. They stuck it out in a $75-a-night motel for as long as they could, but eventually, Tony’s job doing vehicular paint-and-body work couldn’t sustain that bill, which added up to about $2,250 a month.

When we met them on April 15, three weeks into their stay at the encampment, it was already beginning to wear on the couple. Early Monday morning, a storm had swept through Charlotte bringing 60-mph winds and heavy rains equaling two inches every 15 minutes. One man in the camp woke up in his tent as it was being swept away into a nearby creek. He was able to escape unharmed.

Tony said he considered himself lucky, despite the fact that his tent was also flooded and he woke up wet and unable to move in the cold morning.

Homeless encampment in Charlotte.
Tony shares his perspectives on being homeless during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Later that same Monday, a 50-year-old woman was dropped off at the camp by her daughter. She and Nancy made quick friends, but when Tony came home from work, he was rude to her for taking up space right beside their tent. The woman moved down the street a bit. On Tuesday morning, she was found dead in the clearing across North Tryon Street where the old encampment had been. Police say they suspect it was a suicide.

On Wednesday, the woman’s death was still weighing on Tony. He mentioned it multiple times during a conversation that lasted over an hour, each time bringing up his own behavior toward his wife’s newfound friend.

“It’s rough out here … Nobody cares about you. It hurts because you never know where you might be at. I wasn’t born into poverty,” he said. “Really what’s keeping people alive out here, it’s called survival. This is the lowest you can get without being buried in the ground.”

His wife Nancy suffers from emphysema and needs daily breathing treatments through a nebulizer. She’s able to get treatment each morning at UMC, which still offers services on a staggered schedule from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and serves lunch to 320-350 people a day, but for the rest of the day she has no access to electricity. Tony called MEDIC to the camp once already when Nancy’s breathing became severely restricted. She’s also diabetic, placing her in two of the most vulnerable populations for COVID-19.

Like many of the people we met at the encampment, Tony doesn’t blame anyone for putting him in the situation he’s in, but would like to see local government do more to help out, especially in a time of crisis when his wife is at high risk.

“How can you know people are dying — you got plenty of motels, plenty, nobody’s coming to them because everybody’s scared of corona[virus], but the people out here that are homeless, they will take a chance going in there,” he said.

COVID-19 Arrives in Homeless Community

Testing and contact tracing are difficult to carry out amongst the homeless population, but in early April, Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris confirmed there were “several” positive tests among homeless residents in the county, and about 60 people who had been exposed were moved into a hotel leased by the county to help house those who had come from the shelters.

When we met Joe in early April, he had already been staying in the North College Street encampment for three weeks. He was wearing a surgical mask, sitting outside of his tent with friends sharing a meal of Bojangles’ that someone had dropped off on the sidewalk.

“The only ones that got beds are the [people in the] shelter,” he said. “If they are already at the shelter, they already got beds. Nobody here has a bed.”

Camp residents (from left) Cortez Gilbert, Joe and Corleone. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Joe’s friend Cortez Gilbert agreed.

“Never on the streets do they come by and say, ‘Hey, let’s put you in a hotel,’” he said.

Gilbert pointed out that many in the homeless community rely on workers and residents in Uptown for cash to get them through the day, but nobody’s out in the city anymore, adding that he’s heard of millions of dollars being poured into local charitable organizations over the years, but nothing ever seems to happen.

“This right here is a wake-up call for the city,” he continued. “They lyin’. All these hotels are open. All these apartments right here open, but we out here. So where’s the money going?”

In mid-March, representatives with Foundation for the Carolinas and United Way of Central Carolinas announced the COVID-19 Response Fund (CRF), which grants money to organizations throughout the city that work with vulnerable and affected populations. On April 10, the CRF announced its first cycle of grants, totaling more than $3 million, including more than $900,000 to shelter and housing organizations.

Gilbert, however, said he isn’t holding his breath to see any of that money reach people on the streets.

At the Grassroots

By 5:30 p.m. on April 14, about 50 people were already lined up down Phifer Avenue between North College and North Tryon streets in Uptown. About 50 more sat on “The Wall,” a ledge on Phifer where unsheltered homeless folks are known to congregate during the day. In the lot behind Waterbean Coffee, Deborah Woolard rallied her folks. The group moved quickly to set up tents and tables then fill them with food.

Tayste Catering manned the first table, preparing to dish out mushroom pot pie, followed by a table full of spaghetti dinners, then a box full of Easter eggs holding Jolly Ranchers and Twizzlers. The next table held bananas, apples and honeydew melon, then came the desserts.

Woolard also helped other volunteers gather and bag enough meals to deliver to the nearby camps. At 6 p.m., the line started moving, as it does every night.

Woolard and her organization Block Love Charlotte have been serving dinners on Sunday nights at Phifer Avenue for two years now, but the above scene occurred on a Tuesday, because desperate times call for desperate measures. As soon as Woolard and her team saw what was happening in the homeless community amid the COVID-19 crisis, as meal services began to shut down or scale back, she began going out to Phifer Avenue every single evening to make sure nobody went hungry.

At around 7 p.m. that Tuesday, as things wound down, Woolard spoke to Queen City Nerve about the growing need in the community.

“We would maybe do 60-70 people [in the winter], and when this all started the numbers were already kind of escalating because Room In the Inn closed early, so we were seeing about 115 to 120, then we easily jumped to 160, and today we did over 240 meals,” she said. “That includes what we did out here and the ones we took out to the camps. That’s a lot of food.”

Block Love Charlotte at work.
Block Love Charlotte Volunteers bring food and other goods to help people at the camp. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Folks like Woolard and fellow Block Love volunteer Terri Karam have dedicated themselves to making sure that people’s needs are met every night. They don’t just provide food, either. Following dinner service on April 14, a regular from The Wall introduced Karam to a newly homeless couple that couldn’t be over 20 years old. The man was wearing flip-flops and needed a pair of shoes. Although Karam didn’t have his size that day, she found out which of the many homeless encampments in the area that the couple was staying in and promised to find him what he needed.

When asked how often a situation like that arises, Karam answered: “Every single day. That’s why we keep our cars stocked. They know they can come to my car because I got socks in there, I’ve got pants, I’ve got shoes, I’ve got deodorant, I’ve got anything.”

The Block Love team goes beyond the essentials of daily hygiene and clothing, as well. That Tuesday, volunteers discussed the need for agricultural lime to spread around homeless encampments after the weekend storm brought swarms of bugs. They collected wooden pallets to place under tents to make sure no one else would be carried away inside their own tent during a rainstorm.

It frustrated Woolard that, though UMC supplied people with tents and sleeping bags when the crisis began and said they would not clear the encampment as long as the stay-at-home order was in effect, she didn’t believe many of the details were thought through. She said it took strong advocacy from Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham just to get hand-washing stations and portable toilets near the camps and other spots that our homeless neighbors frequent.

“There’s really no place for all these people to use the bathroom, wash their hands, to charge their phones, to do anything,” Woolard said, sounding exhausted. “The library’s closed, there’s nothing for them to do … They gave them the tents and sleeping bags, but nobody took into consideration the bugs. Nobody took into consideration the fact that it’s raining and they don’t need to be on the ground like that.”

Finding Homes

Woolard and her team were able to pool together donations and find an apartment for one elderly couple living in a nearby encampment, but it’s clear that many more are in need.

“How hard would it have been for CMPD to do whatever we did, or for somebody from the county? Or Crisis [Assistance Ministry] or Urban [Ministry Center] that see these people every day to not be able to identify the most vulnerable outside of what we see here?” she asked, looking along The Wall. “But we were able to do that. It’s a shame. We shouldn’t have had to do it, but it’s our family and we’ll do whatever we can.”

Block Love Charlotte at work.
Deborah Woolard at the end of a food service. She would stock up again and return the next day. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

In mid-March, Crisis Assistance Ministry announced they would help families already living in motels and in danger of becoming unsheltered, beginning with $200,000 to help 566 families in 32 area motels in the first wave of assistance.

According to Randall Hitt, chief engagement officer with the recently merged Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t necessarily increased the number of homeless people, which was estimated to be at about 3,600 as of March 31, but “it’s like it’s lifted the covers” on an issue that has been steadily growing in recent years.

As of April 20, UMC and the Men’s Shelter had received a total of $243,462 from the CRF, and Hitt said the job was now to find the most effective way to put that to use. In March, UMC was able to find housing for 41 people, which includes people who had been living in the shelters. The outreach team has now begun working to identify people living on the street who have the most dire need for emergency housing, though efforts like that take time.

As of April 18, Hitt said, UMC was able to find housing for two people who had been on the streets.

“There have been additional funds that have been put forth for us to try to come up with rapid responses or housing solutions because there’s some funding for that,” Hitt said. “But it’s tough because there’s a systematic community-wide response that some people are looking for and then you have what’s happening on the ground and how do you help individuals one at a time?”

Karam said the day-to-day demands of Block Love’s grassroots work can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to remain committed to the folks she considers her family on Phifer Avenue, as all too often they’re either ignored or lied to.

“It’s heartbreaking and it can take a toll on you, but I just keep coming and doing what I can do to help,” she said. “I’ll help you with your shoes, show you love, show you concern. That’s what most people want at the end of the day: They want to feel like they matter, and like somebody cares, and really and truly when you get down to it, that’s what we’re about at Block Love Charlotte. We love you, we care for you, and if we tell you we’re going to be here, we’re going to be here.”

Tony and Nancy keep the faith. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

As for Tony, he’ll continue to go to work by day and help Nancy by night, all the while holding tight to a certain vision he shared with Queen City Nerve during our conversation: him and Nancy living in a two-bedroom house with a yard and a dog. Until then, survival is his top priority.

“I won’t say I’m not scared because I am,” Tony said. “But that’s a fear that I have to fight, so I have to be a warrior.”

[UPDATE: On Wednesday, April 22, we went back to the camp on North College Street to see how things were progressing and learned that Tony and Nancy had been moved into an apartment on the previous day. We are working now to find out where they’re living so we can speak to them for a follow-up.]

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